Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Reflections

May 21, 2008

La Kosher Nostra

Former Gambino family mobster Louis Ferrante tells Gelf about his transformation from hijacker to Orthodox Jew.

Michael Gluckstadt

The ties between Jewish and Italian gangsters are legendary. From Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano to Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth to Tony Soprano and Hesh Rabkin, there is a longstanding tradition of respect—or at least interaction—between the two groups. But Judaism and the mafia have never been as intertwined as they are in the biography of Louis Ferrante. Ferrante was a hijacker in the Gambino crime family in the 1980s and 90s. The Queens native was arrested in 1994 and served eight and a half years in prison on charges of credit card fraud and armed robbery. While he was there, Ferrante made the most of his time. He began reading, writing, and searching for meaning in his life. Eventually, he found his way to Orthodox Judaism, and has been an all-out mensch ever since.

Louis Ferrante
"HarperCollins made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

Louis Ferrante

Ferrante recently wrote a memoir entitled Unlocked: A Journey from Prison to Proust. In the book, he tells the story of his life as a criminal and the transformation he experienced afterwards. His story is inspiring, in part because it is so unlikely. His voice sounds like a slightly more nasal version of Jackie Jr. from the Sopranos, but he speaks of Tolstoy and Shabbos in his thick Queens accent. A bona fide intellectual, he studied law, religion, and literature while in prison, but he could still tell you how to hijack a truck. Below, Ferrante talks to Gelf about his former criminal network, why he became a Jew, and why he preferred to write 19th century historical fiction. You can hear Ferrante and Christian-pop culture analyst Daniel Radosh speak at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, May 29, in New York's Lower East Side. (The following interview has been edited for clarity and Italian and Yiddish slang.)

Gelf Magazine: Back when you were a wiseguy, what did you do? What was your regular routine?

Louis Ferrante: You're out for the hustle. Anything that comes your way, you're ready to go. There's a lot of different angles. You could loan shark, you could be involved in a gambling book or you could be involved in collecting money. But the thing that I was known for on the streets was hijacking. I knew people that were fences who could sell the stuff, so I would steal trucks. I was a hijacker, but I had my hand in everything else too. People come up to you everyday, and before you know it, you're involved in their crime too. It's like a network of criminals that interact with each other on a daily basis, and you find yourself involved in a whole web of crimes.

GM: Why did you decide to write the book?

LF: I didn't want to write this book at first. When I began to change my life while I was away, I wanted to write historical fiction. I loved history and 19th century novels. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Victor Hugo and so on. I wrote a novel about the antebellum South, and that’s what I wanted to publish when I came home. Pretty amazing, huh? An Italian who became a Jew and wanted to write about blacks during slavery. I was getting laughed at everywhere, and I couldn't get the thing published. My friend David Black is a writer for Law and Order. He kept prodding me to write my story. But I refused. I didn't want to look back at the mafia or any of my own personal history. But he didn’t let up. One time he was editing a magazine and he said, "Just write me one little prison piece." The magazine was paying well and I needed the money. So I wrote an article for them and I got a book deal right away. HarperCollins made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

GM: How do the people that you used to run with feel about being depicted in your book?

LF: Well, firstly, I changed everyone's name and though I might disguise the crime, if you were there you probably know who you are. Because I didn't cooperate when I went to prison, I thought it would be a little dishonorable to start exposing everyone now. Especially after I already went to prison. If I was going to do it, I should've done it when I could still knock some time off of my sentence.

GM: Are any of them upset that you've put their story into a book? Do they like it? Are you even in touch with them?

LF: I'm really not in touch with them, though I have bumped into some people and they have no problem with it. But I don’t really talk to people from my past. I didn't give anybody up, I did my time, and now I'm not involved in the life, so I'm not really a threat to anybody.

GM: Was there anything you decided to change or take out from the book that your publisher didn't want you to?

LF: They said I could get paid a lot more if I used real names, but I didn't want to do that. Other than that I had a free hand to write the story as I saw fit.

GM: There's an element of "street talk" in the book. Did you use that to make it seem more realistic, or is that just how you write?

LF: No, I don't write that way, or even speak that way anymore. But that is the way we spoke, and I thought it would be more effective to put it down the way it was. I wanted the reader to be able to visualize the conversations and the way they took place. I included a few Italian-American slang words that we used to use to add to the authenticity of the book.

"People like to see this subculture of outcasts. These are people who don't do 9 to 5, don't pay taxes. There's something exciting about that to someone who's going to work everyday and staring at a computer screen."
GM: Why do you think regular people are so fixated on mob culture?

LF: There's an element of mystery. A lot of people have that sense of awe when it comes to any rebellious character. It's just like in the 50s and 60s when people were infatuated with Castro and Abbie Hoffman. I think that's why John Gotti made a big splash. He was an icon for rebels, bucking the system and doing things his own way. People like to see this subculture of outcasts. These are people who don't go to work every day, don't do 9 to 5. I never worked a day in my life before jail, and didn't have to deal with taxes. There's something exciting about that to someone who's going to work everyday and staring at a computer screen. The other aspect is this idea of a secret society. It's like the UFO programs on the History channel (sometimes I leave the TV on that channel before Shabbos and watch it the next day without having to turn it on). People like this conspiracy theory type of thing. But those are just a few aspects; you could write a whole book answering that question.

GM: While reading the book, I was struck by how familiar so many of the terms and activities were, just from being an avid watcher of The Sopranos,The Godfather and things like that. What do those shows and films get right about mob life?

LF: I never watched the Sopranos, until recently. It started while I was in prison, and I didn't want anything to do with mob life at that time. But when I finally did watch it I thought that they pretty much nailed it. I remember thinking that they must have had real life street guys consulting, because for them to be that accurate, they must know someone. I once ran into a made guy I used to know, and he said that he was going to watch it with all the guys from his crew. If the gangsters are watching it, it must be close to the real thing.

GM: Were you a made guy?

LF: I wasn't. I was slated to get made or "straightened out," but I was only 24 when all of the indictments came down. At the time I was disappointed when I went away and I hadn't gotten straightened out yet. It's an added touch of respect when you're inside. But when I started to change, and developed a belief system and saw that there was a God, I changed the way I thought about it. I said to myself, "Thank God that I don't have this obligation hanging over my head." It's one less headache.

GM: How long were you in jail for?

LF: Exactly eight and half years.

GM: Did you decide to change your life when you went in, or did that happen later on?

LF: The first year, I was hanging out with all the guys. The Colombo war had just ended so there were a lot of Colombo soldiers in prison. We were playing cards every day, Pinochle, Gin Rummy, smoking cigarettes, cursing, laughing, talking about our crimes. I was still totally into it, just in a different atmosphere. In our minds we were still involved, just locked up for a while. After about a year, I started to think. I was in the hole for a little while, and I started to ask questions. I came out and I realized that nobody around me had any answers to these questions. What the Hell was life about? What am I doing here? Is this really what I want for myself? Is stealing and beating people up a good way to make a living? You can't talk to anybody in there about this stuff; they don’t have any answers. So I started to read. I asked a friend of mine for some books. He was John Gotti's bartender at a social club in Queens, and he had half the Bible tattooed on his body (he was a big guy). When I told him I wanted some books, he responded, "What do you want? Playboy? Penthouse? Big tits? Fat asses? What are you into?" After I told him I actually wanted to read, he sent me Napoleon by Vincent Cronin, Mein Kampf, and Casesar's Gallic Wars. Those books were really tough to get through. Now I can read one of those in a single Shabbos afternoon, but at the time it was nearly impossible. I made it a point to never pass over a word I didn't understand until I had looked it up in the dictionary. With each book, the battle became a little easier.

"What the Hell was life about? What am I doing here? Is this really what I want for myself? I realized that nobody around me in jail had any answers to these questions. So I started to read."
GM: So it was the books that inspired you to turn your life around?

LF: Well, after I had gotten this knowledge from books, I began to question things some more. I grew up thinking that Queens was a country, bordered by Brooklyn. I didn’t care where England or Czechoslovakia was. Now, I had an expanded understanding of the world, the universe, the bigger picture. With this new knowledge I explored deeper issues. I realized, for one thing, that there had to be a Creator. Grass grows and fruit grows and nourishes us. The clouds absorb water and deliver rain. The sun rises and sets. If it were any closer we'd burn and any farther we'd freeze. I realized that this world is perfect. So I knew there was a Creator, but the next thing was, who is He?

Now this was a whole new big thing to study. I picked up the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran, the Gospels of my own religion. And everything came back to the Torah—at least all the monotheistic religions. There is this Christian idea of the Old Testament, "The Jews had it wrong, we're right. We redid it the right way. Don't worry about keeping Kosher. Circumcision is optional." And Islam also traces its roots back to the Torah. So all of these other religions are taking the Torah, rewriting it, and claiming it as their own. Well, I'm sitting in jail for robbery, and that's the greatest robbery I ever heard of. I think to myself, if God does all these wonderful things that keep the world in order, could he really blunder by giving the book to the wrong people? Is God a bad judge of character? That was too contradictory for me. So I read the Torah and I felt that it reflected my human conscience, and that it was right. And people might ask me about some aspect of it, like "Why can't you eat pork?" And I would say to them, "I have no idea. But if everything else is right, I have to accept that it's my lack of understanding, and not that He got something wrong."

GM: Were you drawn to Judaism on your own, or was there a Rabbi who helped you along?

LF: In the beginning it was very frustrating, because I had done all of this study on my own and come to all these conclusions, and now I wanted to interact with Jews. So I started going to services and I took my name off of the Catholic list and put it on the Jewish list. But the Rabbi didn’t want to call me. All of these convicts in jail are looking for some kind of break. A lot of them might join different religions so that they get the figs during Ramadan or the matzo during Passover. Even religion was a hustle. The Rabbis saw me on the Jewish list and figured I was some mob guy looking for rugulech on Saturdays. But then I would talk to them, and ask how they felt about Maimondies or Rashi, or how do I put on my tefillin. And when they saw that I was for real, they looked for me and welcomed me with open arms.

GM: This might be a bit of a personal question. But when you pray on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, do you struggle with the crimes of your past, or do you consider yourself to be an altogether different person?

LF: Well, on those days in particular the focus is on sins that have occurred over the past year, and my crimes are a lot older than that. Overall, I still at times struggle with things that I've done and it hurts. I was in jail for eight and a half years on three separate cases. I went through seven attorneys and even studied law myself. I was denied more appeals than I can count. And every time I was denied I remember going back to my bunk and saying to God, "Good. Don't let me out until I've paid my price. I really don’t want to leave here owing anything. Go ahead, increase the suffering, keep me as long as you want, but I want to leave having paid my debt to society and natural justice as well." It says in the Torah among the attributes of God, He will forgive you, but you have to pay and repent.

GM: What's next for you?

LF: I have a beautiful girlfriend who also converted and I spend all my time with her. We keep Shabbos together and have a Kosher home. I do some speaking engagements, my friend David Black from Law and Order recently arranged to have me speak at a class at Harvard. I just finished editing the historical fiction slavery novel I wrote in prison. I'm also working on the screenplay for Unlocked with Lorraine Bracco from the Sopranos, who bought the rights to it. And I live up in the mountains. I read the Torah everyday in the morning and every night before I go to sleep.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Books
- posted on May 26, 08

Think one of you dudes could ask him this question for me on Thursday. It's kinda stupid, but I've always been curious...

The phrase "opening up the books" (they say it when someone's gonna get made in The Sopranos and Goodfellas), is there actually, like, a book with their names in it? Or is it just a figure of speech?

- Books
- posted on Jun 07, 08

Cool article!

Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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